Not by might : Christianity, nonviolence, and American radicalism, 1919-1963

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Danielson, Leilah Claire

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This dissertation argues that Gandhian nonviolence (satyagraha) only took root in the American pacifist community after a process of adaptation and modification. Reflecting their background in Social Gospel Christianity and progressivism, pacifists were initially reluctant to adopt nonviolence because they feared that Gandhi’s tactics were coercive rather than persuasive. However, due to the challenge posed by Reinhold Niebuhr and other “Christian realists” in the 1930s, as well as their interactions with Indian nationalists, pacifists began to experiment with nonviolent resistance in the 1940s as founders of the Congress of Racial Equality. In adopting Gandhian nonviolence, pacifists reinterpreted it in the context of their religious cosmology and political traditions. No two figures exemplify this process more than A.J. Muste and Dorothy Day, who brought their experience in the labor movement to bear on the question of how pacifism and Christianity could relate to contemporary political concerns. As this study shows, nonviolence continued to evolve in relationship to the changing political context, particularly the role of the United States in the world. Mortified by the atomic bombing of Japan and concerned by the threat to democracy posed by the Cold War, pacifists revived the notion of the individual conscience against the state. By not paying taxes or registering for the draft, they hoped to convince their fellow Americans that they bore responsibility for the nuclear arms race. In taking dramatic stands against nuclear weapons and racism, pacifists served a vanguard role in struggles against racial segregation, violations of civil liberties, and nuclear proliferation throughout the postwar era. In contrast to most historians of American religion, who emphasize the rise of Christian realism (or neo-orthodoxy), this study demonstrates that Christian pacifism continued to evolve after World War II. It also argues that Christianity shaped American radicalism in the twentieth century, and points to continuities between nineteenthcentury and twentieth-century reform traditions. Finally, this dissertation demonstrates that individuals, ideas, and events in the larger world have shaped the intellectual structure of American public life, and contends that one cannot understand American political culture without reference to the role of the United States in the world.




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